The new European treaty, the euro and sovereignty


By Christophe Blot

On 2 March 2012, 25 countries in the Economic and Monetary Union (EMU) adopted a new treaty providing for greater fiscal discipline. The treaty became an object of dispute almost before the ink was dry [1], as Francois Hollande announced that, if elected, he would seek to renegotiate it in order to emphasize the need to address growth. There is no doubt that a turnabout like this on a treaty that was so fiercely negotiated would be frowned upon by a number of our European partners. The merit of strengthening fiscal discipline in a time of crisis is, nevertheless, an issue worth posing.

So how should we look at this new treaty? Jérôme Creel, Paul Hubert and Francesco Saraceno have already demonstrated the potential recessionary impact of the rules it introduces. In addition to these macroeconomic effects, the treaty also fails to deal with an essential question that should be at the heart of the European project: sovereignty.

In 1998, one year before the launch of the euro, Charles Goodhart [2] published an article in which he raised a peculiar feature of the Economic and Monetary Union (EMU) with respect to monetary theory and history. Goodhart recalled that a currency is almost always inextricably bound up with the expression of political and fiscal sovereignty. However, in the context of the EMU, this link is broken, as the euro and monetary policy are controlled by a supranational institution even though they are not part of any expression of European sovereignty, as fiscal policy decisions in particular remain decentralized and regulated by the Stability and Growth Pact. Goodhart concluded that the creation of the euro portends tensions that will need careful attention.

The current crisis in the euro zone shows that this warning was well founded. The warning makes it possible above all to consider the crisis from a different perspective – a political one. The issue of the sustainability of the debt and compliance with rules in effect masks the euro’s underlying problem, its “original sin”: the single currency is doomed if it is not based on fiscal and political sovereignty. If there are any exceptions to this, they consist ​​of micro-states that have abandoned their monetary sovereignty to neighbours that are far more powerful economically and politically. The euro zone is not the Vatican.

The renegotiation of the treaty or the opening of new negotiations with a view to the ratification of a European Constitution is not only urgent but vital to the survival of the European project. Beyond the overarching objectives of growth, employment, financial stability and sustainable development, which, it must be kept in mind, are at the heart of European construction, as is evidenced by their inclusion in Article 3 of the Treaty on the European Union, any new negotiations should now address the question of Europe’s political and fiscal sovereignty, and therefore, by corollary, the issue of the transfer of national sovereignty.

It should be noted that this approach to the implementation of European sovereignty is not inconsistent with the existence of rules. In the United States, most states have had balanced budget rules since the mid-nineteenth century, prior to which a number of them had defaulted (see C.R. Henning and M. Kessler [3]). However, these rules were adopted at the initiative of the states and are not included in the US Constitution. There are, however, ongoing efforts to include a requirement in the Constitution for a balanced budget at the federal level. For the moment, these have not been successful, and they are being challenged on the grounds that this would risk undermining the stabilizing power of the federal budget. In the United States, before the crisis the resources of the federal state accounted for 19% of GDP, compared with an EU budget that does not exceed 1% of GDP and which must always be balanced, and therefore cannot be used for of macroeconomic adjustments. In the US, the stabilization of shocks is thus handled through an unrestricted federal budget, which offsets the poor responsiveness of local fiscal policies that are constrained by the requirement for balance. While the euro zone must surely find its own way, the fact remains that the euro should not be an instrument in the hands of the European Central Bank alone: it must become a symbol of the political and fiscal sovereignty of all the euro zone’s citizens.

[1] It will only take effect, however, after a ratification process in the 25 countries. This could be a long and uncertain process, as Ireland has announced that it will hold a referendum.

[2] See “The two concepts of money: implications for the analysis of optimal currency areas”, Journal of European Political Economy vol.14 (1998) pages 407-432.

[3] “Fiscal federalism: US history for architects of Europe’s fiscal union”, (2012) Peterson Institute for International Economics.